Friday, May 29, 2009

Notes from Germany 2: the Kinderbuchhaus, thoughts on illustrations

One of the most enjoyable sessions during the trip was our visit to the Kinderbuchhaus (Children’s Book House) in the Altona Museum in Hamburg. It’s a charming place that conducts activities geared towards getting children (and their parents) more involved with books. For instance, there are workshops where children are shown how to bind books – something that helps them appreciate the process that goes into the creation of the picture-books they would otherwise take for granted; to see a book as something that has to be carefully put together so that they can enjoy the end product. Enthusiasm levels run high at these workshops: project coordinator Heike Roegler told us that children are very proud – and very possessive – about the books they make themselves.

Also held here are exhibitions of framed, original versions of children’s book illustrations, so that visitors can see these drawing as works of art in their own right. On the day we were there, a Peter Schössow exhibition was on (
Schössow himself was there too, as mentioned in the last post). Illustrations like this one – a child’s-eye perspective of a little cat in the foreground of a big city – look spectacular when you see them in their full-size versions:

Looking at high-quality illustrations for their artistic value, you realise there’s a lesson here for the many Indian parents who instinctively judge the worth of a children’s book by the amount of text it contains (all the better when it’s placed in the service of a pedantic moral lesson), failing to realise the role a series of beautiful drawings can play in developing a child’s imagination. (“Ismein padhne ka toh kuch hai hi nahin” is the typical response when a parent opens a book that’s full of beautiful drawings but very little text. But as Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, and one of the most entertaining members of our party, says, “You want value for your word-count? Buy a newspaper.”)

Earlier in the day, I had spoken with Zubaan’s Anita Roy about the often-haphazard way in which illustrations for children’s books are put together in India. “The Indian arts scene is actually lively and brilliant,” Anita said, “but there’s a lack of understanding of how children’s picture-books work. Illustrators are so central to the children’s publishing industry everywhere except India, where they get sidelined. They are not used to having publishers involving them in the creative aspect of putting a book together. It’s usually done very mechanically: an author will send in a story, the editor will say okay, this needs illustrations, and she’ll choose an illustrator and a format and send the text across and say we need 10 drawings of this size. And then someone else will put the text and illustrations together – a typesetter, or a designer if you’re very lucky. Everyone works in isolation, not much thought is given to layout, which is a crucial part of the process.”

“Most children’s publishing houses in India don’t even have a proper art director, so decisions about art design, layout etc are taken by editors like me, which is not the best way to do these things. Words persons end up having to learn how to think visually. Putting together a good picture-book requires an understanding of how text and visuals have to play off each other, but this is a neglected field in India.”

(I should mention here that Young Zubaan has just published one of the best-looking Indian picture-books I’ve seen, Mister Jeejeebhoy and the Birds by Anitha Balachandran. Lots of lovely drawings, notably a two-page spread of a sweet-shop that you just can’t tear your eyes away from. I first saw some of the illustrations at Bookaroo last winter and have been looking forward to the book ever since.)

The German Book Office in Delhi has now launched a programme called Jumpstart for children’s publishing in India, and among its initiatives is a series of intensive workshops for professionals involved in children’s books: writers and editors, illustrators, librarians and teachers, and marketing personnel. These will be held starting in July this year - mainly at the Max Mueller Bhawan, Delhi - and will hopefully address some of the issues facing children’s publishing in India. Anita tells me that as far as she knows none of the design colleges or art schools in India have courses that specialise in children’s book illustrations - certainly there's nothing that's comparable to the rigour with which these things are done in the West. The Jumpstart workshops should be a step in the desired direction.

(More about our meeting with the illustrators in another post)


  1. Lets hope our bacchus are kinder after reading these books :P

  2. Hi!!

    There are a few good indian children books publishers like Tulika and Tara Books - who seem to be giving quite a bit of attention to the illustrations and how the interact with the words.

    Not surprisingly, I have not seen a completely words free, Indian published picture book. They might be there; but, sadly I have never come across one.

    Waiting for an indian David Weisner!!

    in the meanwhile, I will try to figure how I can lay my hands on Peter Schössow's books. Thanks for introducing his books here.

  3. refreshing to hear in the video game era :)

  4. its v. heartening to see someone so much in love with their job...and such a brilliant post at that. :)

    i sometimes so envy you that i could have been in your place!


  5. What you are saying is absolutely right...but I would say things are changing for good.
    The Indian illustration market is still at a very nascent stage but there are design studios in Delhi started by young fine art graduates who are really keen to offer world class illustrations to both Indian and international market.

    Just check out the bookwork section of

  6. >>the often-haphazard way in which illustrations for children’s books are put together in India.

    Have you seen the Tulika and Tara books? They have fabulous illustrations. Tulika has NID designers doing their illustrations. Don't diss the industry without doing some more homework.

  7. Not surprisingly, I have not seen a completely words free, Indian published picture book.Sathish: yes, I'd be interested in knowing if there are any available. Saw quite a few good wordless picture-books in Germany, including some of the Pixi titles.

    Ashish: thanks for the link - good to hear things are improving.

    Sunita: tch. What exactly didn't you understand in the phrasing "the often-haphazard way in which illustrations for children's books are put together in India"?

    I'm sure Tulika and Tara are doing good work and will continue to do good work in the future. Just saying that the overall attitude towards illustrations isn't as evolved here as in some other countries. And that has a lot to do with parents' attitudes too.

  8. Sounds like a nifty backtrack - considering you quoted Ratna Sagar's editor commenting on illustrations - have you even seen the Ratna Sagar nursery books - ghastly pics.

  9. Sunita: the quote you mention was a general quote about parents' attitudes towards visual-heavy, text-light books. It doesn't in any way imply that Ratna Sagar's own books make masterful use of illustrations (and I certainly haven't indicated that in the post myself). If you have a constructive point to make (as you did in your earlier comment about Tulika and Tara doing good work), go ahead. But avoid the snarkiness.

  10. Well, then, this is my crib : you are seen as an authority on books and publishing, so when you make statements on the state of that world, I would assume your opinion is founded on some basic research. Instead, it is clear that you haven't taken more than a casual dekko into kids' books in India. I am fine with you making a sweeping indictment on the state of illustrations but how about a more balanced view on the matter? I get the sense that you have seen more children's books from foreign publishers than those from India, your one take on YoungZubaan apart. How about a look at what's good and what's bad and more importantly, the reasons behind this? The fact that good illustrations cost money, demand for kids' books is still low, so the printruns are teenyweeny, which makes the price of books, even the more accessible ones by Tulika, go beyond Rs 100 or so for a picturebook, which makes the demand low and so the vicious cycle perpetuates itself. Attributing all this to parents not being aesthetically appreciative (yes, yes, you didn't say that, but that is clearly the subtext seems a bit simplistic, don't you think?

  11. Typo in above post : close parenthesis after subtext.

  12. I notice that Mr Jeejeebhoy is priced at 395 - which is hugely premium pricing in the Indian kids' books market. I don't think the book will sell upwards of a few hundreds each year at that price. Check out with them how much exactly the writer and illustrator will make each year - the royalties are not exactly princely, you know. Ironically, what is really needed to jumpstart the industry is a host of good books at Rs 50 or so - which means massive print runs - whose going to take the risk? Unlike in Germany, writing/illustrating kids' books in India is more a labour of love than a career - it will barely bring home the pav, let alone the vada.

  13. "Who's going to take the risk?" I asked above - i see that YoungZubaan has a range of Rs60 books - which should be worth tracking - the illustrations, interestingly are fairly basic.

  14. Sunita: I've never set myself up as any sort of "authority on books or publishing" (and definitely not children's publishing) - you're the one making that assumption. I should think that these posts, and my replies to some of the comments on them, should make it clear that children's publishing is an area that I'm slowly trying to understand things about.

    "I am fine with you making a sweeping indictment on the state of illustrations but how about a more balanced view on the matter?"

    I just reread the post and I'm still not sure what passage/sentence has riled you so much or given you the impression that I'm making sweeping indictments (that too from an "authoritative", know-all perspective). Can you clarify? Even when I quote Anita Roy, it's obvious that it amounts to one person's views and that there can be counter-perspectives.

    "...How about a look at what's good and what's bad and more importantly, the reasons behind this?..."

    Sure. This is something I'd like to do, by speaking to people in the industry apart from the people I interacted with on the trip. I get the impression that you're an insider, so why not ditch the anonymity and get in touch with me on email so I can (officially) get some of your thoughts on the matter?

  15. I am a resident of Hamburg and i am so glad to come across this post....funny that i have never been to Altonaer museum inspite of being staying 15 min away from it for past three years....!!

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  17. Maybe our illustrations are too artsy from a child's point of view.
    Kids do feel ovewhelmed by "sight".
    There must be a strong connection between what one is reading ,to what one is seeing ,to what one is ultimately comprehending- since the child does all this at the same time.
    What finally gets across to the child is what is really important.
    The medium is just an aid that shouldnt ultimately get in the way of their comprehension, be it words or illustrations.